It is a path he could probably tread blindfolded – he is, after all, pretty much rugby’s Mr Perfect. Off the team coach, into the stadium and down beneath the expectant fans in the grandstands to the changing rooms. It is here, though, that Jonny Wilkinson’s blindfold will have to come off as instead of pushing open the door to the home dressing room he will be across the other side of the corridor.
This will be Wilkinson’s 46th playing visit to England’s headquarters spread over a decade and a half, three times for club and the rest for country, the first when he was little more than a boy. It will be a rare visit to the away dressing room and the only time, barring those Newcastle days, when he has run out onto the Twickenham turf without the majority backing of those occupying the stands.
“Just to get one shot here was great,” said Wilkinson, “I try not to look at this as if it will be the last.”
Yesterday evening he was out on the familiar turf, taking his Toulon side – he will lead them out tomorrow – through the Captain’s Run. Wilkinson and Twickenham have history.
“The stadium and what it represents have been incredible,” he said. “I have had some phenomenal memories here. I have enjoyed every second of it.”
It is a rich, rewarding story. One that encompasses 650 points for England – and an awful lot of time frozen in that particular, peculiar, bottom-out squat before each attempt at the posts – but there is not much recent history there.
Over the last three years, as his international career meandered to its low-key finale last year, Wilkinson started only three times for England at Twickenham. It is away from HQ that he has enjoyed his Indian summer, finding another adoring audience – albeit one a rugby world removed from the one that populates Twickenham on match day – on France’s south coast.
Toulon are here, in tomorrow’s Heineken Cup semi-final against Saracens, thanks in no small part to the man who will forever be linked to No 10. Wilkinson is the honest, solid soul of English rugby, occasionally a spark, always steady as he goes.
Twenty-one immaculately executed points saw off Leicester in the quarter-final, 18 from the kicking tee and the final three with a drop goal dispatched with a snap that rolled back the years. In between there were a series of tackles – time after time he downed his man. It did, on the day at least, for Toby Flood, one of his successors in that England shirt. Tomorrow it is the incumbent, Owen Farrell, on the other side.
“They are cut from the same cloth,” said Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby. Above everything it is Wilkinson’s mental steel that has left a deep impression on McCall, and others. “He’s got to where he’s got to by having a strong mentality,” he said.
Wilkinson has been impressed by Farrell. They first met at the 2007 World Cup and back then Wilkinson could see there was something about the boy. “Even at his age he had what I had,” said the elder No 10.
Next month Wilkinson turns 34. He was 18 when he first played for England, coming off the Twickenham bench to replace Mike Catt on the wing, and in a sport that, as Steve Borthwick pointed out yesterday, gets physically tougher and more intense – at club as well as international level – that is a long time taking the hits.
Over the years they have taken a heavy toll – after the 2003 World Cup final Wilkinson did not pull on the white shirt again for more than 1,000 days.
At the start of this year he thought this season might be his last. A persistent groin problem suggested to him it was time to call it a day. Yet there was no shortage of dissenters; Toulon team-mates Matt Giteau, a year his junior, and Frédéric Michalak both told him to play on. His form prompted talk of a British Lions place.
“It is still too early to make a statue of Jonny,” proclaimed Mourad Boudjellal, the Toulon owner and comic-publishing magnate, of his very own comic book hero.
Wilkinson has signed on for another year. The French experience has rolled back the years. At yesterday’s press conference he switched easily between French and English, depending on the inquisitor.
“I’m excited about getting up every morning and attacking each day, and excited about playing rugby,” he said. “I know that I’m in the right place.”
Toulon are regarded by some as an expensively assembled collection of mercenaries but Wilkinson is clearly revelling in the experience. There may be South Africans in one corner of the visitors’ dressing room, Englishmen, Frenchmen, an Argentine, a Welshman and so on, yet it is a team that Wilkinson sees.
“I’ve never really felt team spirit like this – people willing to learn, take responsibility,” he said. “Sunday is our reward for this but not an end in itself. This is part and parcel of our voyage as a club. These are the kind of matches you play rugby for.”
His opponents tomorrow are all too familiar with what he still brings to the field. David Strettle suggested Wilkinson’s work ethic still sets the benchmark for today’s England men, while, in the home dressing room, Borthwick, Saracens captain and another former England team-mate, will preach the need to keep firm minds.
“In games like this the margins are tight,” he said. “Discipline is key, especially with Jonny Wilkinson kicking.” Something, Borthwick might have added, he can do blindfolded.
Kicking king: Wilko in numbers
73 Points scored in the Heineken Cup by Wilkinson this season
2011 Wilkinson’s previous best cup performance was two years ago – when he helped Toulon to the quarter-finals of the com
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